A recently published study in the scientific journal, Occupational Medicine, shows that young stonemasons can and are still developing silicosis, a serious and deadly – yet entirely preventable - occupational lung disease.
The study looked in detail at six stonemasons, ranging in age from 24 to 39, who have developed this disease, one after just seven years in the trade, and all of whom are yet without any symptoms. When different types of stone are worked by cutting, grinding and chiselling, airborne dust is generated that can cause serious lung conditions if inhaled over time. Some stonemasonry work also involves the application of fine decorative detail to stone, which often requires working very closely to the dust source. Breathing in the smaller respirable sized fraction of the silica dust – respirable crystalline silica (RCS) – is what can result in the development of silicosis, as well as other serious lung diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.
"This research study is hugely important because it highlights the devastating impact that exposure to hazardous dusts - simply by carrying out the regular tasks of their trades - can have on young construction workers' lives today," says Steve Perkins, Chief Executive of BOHS, the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection. "It is estimated that over 500 construction workers die every year in the UK from respiratory diseases caused by exposure to silica dust, and yet these diseases can be prevented - by making sure health hazards are properly understood and recognised, risks are evaluated and exposures are effectively controlled."
Also commenting on the study, Dr Alasdair Emslie, President of the Society of Occupational Medicine, states "The missed opportunity is that this is an old disease that we know how to control. It's simply a case of getting the right expertise, into the right workplaces."
Current occupational health guidelines recommend that only workers who report new or worsening respiratory symptoms be given an x-ray, but this study suggests that, in addition to controlling exposure to silica dust, regular radiological screening should be given to all workers at risk so that there is early detection of the disease. Dr Peter Reid, the lead author, from the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, said "This study … makes the case for making sure that those at high risk are given x-rays at appropriate intervals, even when they don't have symptoms. Early detection could save young lives." Dr Reid emphasises, however, that "we should always remember that screening is not a substitute for good control of workplace exposure." Breathe Freely is a BOHS led initiative, in conjunction with some of the major players in the construction industry, which aims to prevent just such respiratory disease. Breathe Freely is about generating better awareness of the impact and causes of occupational ill-health in construction, and also effecting preventative solutions by providing information and guidance, and sharing best practice. Amongst the available resources is a series of fact sheets which set out main hazards, highest risks and preferred control options for all the key construction trades, which includes one for stonemasons.